Tuesday, September 24, 2013

State Appeals Court Resolves Serbian Orthodox Church Dispute

Puskar v. Krco, (IL App., Sept. 23, 2013), involves a complicated dispute over whether or not the Serbian Orthodox Metropolitanante of New Gracanica Diocese of the United States and Canada reunited with the Serbian Orthodox Church based in Belgrade, Serbia.  In 1992, the two organizations took steps to unite by adopting Transitional Regulations.  Bishop Longin, appointed by the Belgrade church, announced in 2009 that a reorganization had occurred and that there is no longer a split between the Metropolitanante Diocese and the Belgrade Church.  Plaintiffs sued for a declaratory judgment and injunction, claiming that the Assembly of the Metropolitanante Diocese never authorized a reorganization and retained self-governing authority. The trial court dismissed on the basis of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, concluding that the focus of the suit was on the Bishop's duties and whether he had violated them.

In a 2-1 decision, a majority of the Illinois Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that plaintiffs merely sought an interpretation of the contractual relationship between the two churches, and in particular whether the Transitional Regulations are still in effect. The majority concluded that the Transitional Regulations expired according to their terms in 1995, and so the Metroplitanante Diocese is no longer governed by them.  Judge Spence dissenting argued that the case is primarily a dispute over church polity which the court is barred from deciding under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.